In my aunt’s house, in the bedroom where I’ve often slept, there’s a framed photo of a ship’s manifest that I love to stare at. The ship was the RMS Aquitania, a Cunard ocean liner with an inky-black hull that was famous for its four smokestacks; its picture hangs in the bedroom, too. I can spend long minutes looking at these photos, first the ship, then the manifest, with its clutter of blocky print that draws my eyes up, down, and across the page until they finally settle on the name I’m always looking for: Ozcar Ratowzer. The print tells me that he was a worker from the town of Bialystok in Poland. If I trace down the column labeled “race or people,” I come to the word “Hebrew.”
Ozcar Ratowzer, also known as Osher, was my grandfather. The manifest lists him as being 16, but my family believes he was closer to 19 or 20 when he boarded the Aquitania in Southampton, England, on October 23, 1920, and began his third-class voyage across the Atlantic. The journey took seven days, finally depositing him at Ellis Island, America’s “Golden Door,” the gateway to a world without pogroms or hunger or the horror of world war. There, he would almost certainly have been met by an assembly line of doctors and inspectors, who would have poked and peered at him, pried and questioned until, content with what they’d found, they would have sent him on his way with his handful of old-world possessions and the shards of a new identity. He would soon become known as Harry Ratner.
My grandfather’s journey has always moved me, filled me with overwhelming gratitude and awe, not least because I’m aware how differently it might have turned out. Ozcar’s passage to this country was far from guaranteed. A Jewish kid of conscription age, he was barred from leaving Poland legally, meaning that he and one of his older brothers, Leiser, were forced to slip over the border with Germany dressed as cattle herders, then hide in a barn overnight, buried in haystacks. Their first attempt failed: My grandfather was caught by a bunch of pitchfork-wielding German guards and sent back across the border. His second attempt was more successful, but once in Germany, he and his brother ran into a second hurdle: They were carrying fake German passports, and, family accounts suggest, the American consul had no intention of honoring them. It was only after the intercession of their oldest brother, Kalman, a Bolshevik sympathizer turned American citizen and Freemason, that the consul agreed to grant them passage to the United States. (According to family lore, the consul was also a Freemason.)
The brothers arrived safely on Ellis Island on October 30, 1920, and soon made their way to Cleveland. The rest of the family—their parents and six of their siblings—arrived on the RMS Caronia two months later, though their journey ended less happily. My grandfather’s 9-year-old brother, Joseph, had fallen ill on the boat to America, and he died just a few weeks after reaching this country.